The Armenian genocide of 1915 is the context for travel to modern Turkey by the children and grandchildren of its survivors who had become an integral part of the Armenian-American diaspora. Situated in Ottoman and Turkish history, a large textual and ethnographic archive documents their travel as "pilgrims" in search of their families' lost houses and villages, their means of facing their memories of trauma in a landscape of erasure, and how they react in ways that spatially restore their connection to what they value from the past; this archive also documents Armen Aroyan's role in making sure they get there.
A pilgrim to Yozgat finds her family mansion preserved as an ethnographic museum, with its Armenian history erased. She carries a folder of memory-laden items that represent bonds of ownership, including family photographs from Yozgat. Seeing the museum-house's organ, like one she plays in Boston, she merges it with her documents of home, allowing her to place herself in the house's story. This shows how memory is reassembled when things and the stories about them are brought to the place where they took place.
Having only recently broken through her parents' traumatic silences about the Armenian genocide, a pilgrim finds that her village, existing only as stones and boulders, has its own enforced amnesia. Meeting a Muslim woman, daughter of one of the Armenian Kılıç Artıkları, those spared from being massacred, she feels connected to her, as their mothers were Armenians from the same village. At the other extreme, the kind owners of a pilgrim family's ancestral village house gave one of its old keys to that family, which they treasure as their own. Both exemplify how pilgrims imaginatively re-imagine their houses, or the places where they once were, and even "inhabit" them, giving memory a future.
Both "native" pilgrims (born in historical Armenia and having left at an age when they were old enough to retain memories) and "descendant pilgrims" (children and grandchildren of genocide survivors), consider their ancestral houses, villages and towns sacred, as places to feel ancestral spirits. But because of what happened there either in the Hamidian massacres or the genocide, when they arrive, they must negotiate a confrontation with the double reverberation of the sacred and the profane, that is, their houses' location in non-sacred sites that are "inhabited by enemies of God."
Native pilgrims confront the sacred and the profane in many ways, but always tinged with pain. In the 1950s and 1960s, when the town of Agn retained a small Armenian community, a pilgrim listened to local bantukhd (exile) music that activated a place-related reverie of spiritual return, "as if I had returned to my father's house: and if I open the door and go through the threshold, I will find my mother there in the kitchen." Yet other pilgrims, who also bring stories of a house's wholeness, may feel a new rage "at being thrown out of my father's home."
Descendant pilgrims have no autobiographical memories of the places they visit; but the memory-stories they bring, i.e., stories they themselves heard from their elders, are autobiographical. The sacrality of their ancestral house (or the "house-place," where they once were) is animated by these memory-stories, often further authenticated through signs provided by ancestral help.
Descendant pilgrims create personal rituals which, in the moment of performance, revise the meaning of their houses and villages but also change the pilgrim by actively resituating them in a living history. These are either interactive rituals, which perform some type of flow between the pilgrim and the ancestor, or rituals of agency that comprise conscious, performative enactments of change.
On reaching their home villages or towns, pilgrims often perform rituals of communion through which their actions evoke an enveloping, visceral connection to a specific ancestor such that pilgrim and ancestor are united in a joint activity outside of time. Like its Christian counterpart, such communion almost always demands an intermediary, such as food or water, that activates a shared moment in the shared house or house-place.
Pilgrimage rituals are invented creatively and activated through performance, resulting in something like poetry. Unlike narratives, which have a goal of explaining, poetry has an aesthetic goal of conveying an experience of being moved, and even of conveying it as an experiential whole. Although the experience may resonate with ancestral and cultural memory, rituals unfold poetically through metaphor, action and bodily experience, resulting in a viscerally felt connecting of souls.
Descendant pilgrims often bring photographs of their elders and ancestors whose house-worlds they seek. Some leave these photos behind as votives that represent a desire to heal stories but also are enactments of devotion. Votive photos are always sequestered, meant to endure as permanent spiritual requests as well as claims on place; thus, leaving items behind is also an act of agency. Yet in the imperfect setting of genocide's long arc of erasure, with no immediate promise of a future, redemptive wholeness, their placement may leave a pilgrim un-satisfied, saddened, or even angry,
Pilgrims who bring photographs to their ancestral villages may leave them behind as votives to reestablish connections that had been severed by traumatic silences. These rituals of restoration are enacted by burying the photos in the soil of a family house, but they may be used to embed all the family spirits whose stories and even memory had almost been lost to the pilgrims, making their ritual a votive of commitment to knowing their own ancestors' stories so they could emanate from this land again.
The different meanings of seemingly similar gestures, such as pilgrims hiding photographs of their survivor family members in the place of the lost ancestral house, can only be understood in terms of the emotional totality of the stories they represent. When these stories are fragmented and internally conflicting, they may conceal forces that could lead to shame, such as a conversion to Islam. These rituals show that re-placement of the family in the house as a photo is not an effort to bring them back home, even symbolically, but an ex-voto of gratitude for what they overcame.
Pilgrims create rituals intended to change the landscape to combat their invisibility in a homeland that has erased them. Outside and in the open, at or near the lost house of ancestors who represent their personal core, pilgrims make shrines to support symbolic objects meant to stand for people, stories, histories and values that should still thrive there. These might be ephemeral, immutable only in the photographs they take of them, but because they are built at the cosmic spot of the house, the ancestral home is given a transcendent visibility and the pilgrim an enduring place in it.
When pilgrims are struck by the spiritual power of their house, they are often joyful because the house connects them to the loving memories their family cherished of it, while never forgetting why it is no longer theirs. Rituals of blessings are not only central to a ritual recuperation of the house's sanctity but also formalize this positive connection; and when pilgrims are met by hospitable owners, who admit that there is a shared aspect to ownership, these ritual blessings may include them too.
Pilgrims who heard their survivor family members singing "old country" songs understood these as a repertoire of longing for individual villages, although they may not have originated there. Many had been arranged by the famous Armenian composer Gomidas Vartabed [Komitas Vardabet] ( 18691935), and they lived on in the diaspora through famous performers. Pilgrims sang these songs in their villages because their elders had associated them with those villages and with their loss; in this way, shared homeland music serves the idea of the village as homeland's affective marker.
When pilgrims who found their house-places sang or played the music that their survivor families had brought from there to their host-land in the diaspora, they carried back some of their host-land memories and attachments as well. With the growth of a more general Armenian music-scene in the diaspora, one that meshed local cultures, the next generations gradually lost the ability to separate local variations, let alone the lyrics and the dance steps aligned with them. When these non-musical specialist pilgrims danced with generic Armenian steps and rhythms to a pilgrim's local tunes, we see how local music had become "homeland music."
Outside their bus, pilgrims confronted what they often apprehended as a trauma-scape of perpetrators, those perpetrators' children, and a world of genocide deniers, their impact made starker by memorials of denial: killing sites with dedications to Turkish heroes, streets and schools named for Talaat Pasha [a Young Turk perpetrator of the genocide] and Armenian historical sites that lacked the word "Armenian." Pilgrims took on a task of becoming memorials in a land of anti-memorials, such as by singing Armenian hymns in the shells of churches in Ani or in the beloved church of Aghtamar, which the Turkish state has claimed as a type of outdoor museum, closed to public prayer.
Pilgrims were able to deflect their apprehension of Turkey when they were inside their buses, traveling together. This feeling was maintained by Armen Aroyan, who orchestrated group conversations that directed pilgrims to see not only a landscape of destroyed Armenian villages but also the way villages were living successfully in Armenian neighborhoods and institutions in the host-land, where they victoriously mirrored the lost homeland.
In a homeland seemingly bereft of Armenians, pilgrims searched for them anyway, often discovering someone thought to be "the last Armenian" of a particular place. These meetings were treasured, as they offered pilgrims a way to physically feel that the connection to their personal past had not, after all, been wholly shattered. This was especially true when they visited Vakef, the last Armenian village in Turkey. This sense of connection may be a momentary sensation, but it lives on for the pilgrims as their having had a real experience of home.
Although pilgrims felt they were traveling in a landscape devoid of Armenians, some pilgrims knew of actual family, descendants of those left behind, and they used their pilgrimage to visit them. The realization that their relatives, sometimes first cousins, were now Muslim aligned with their observation that many in their own villages "looked like family." This made pilgrims suspect that those familiar faces belonged to the children and grandchildren of Armenians who had survived by forced conversion, and thus that an entire population had been hidden from view, often, in fact, right where they had been left behind. This would become a dilemma, with problems and possibilities for Armenian and Turkish historical narratives.
In Diyarbakir, the pro-Kurdish party jumped the divide between the Armenian and the Kurdish struggles, one result being a safer place for [especially] Kurds with Armenian heritage and Armenians to make their histories public. This allowed pilgrims of the same generation to see themselves mirrored in each other and as a possible cohort. Pro-Kurdish solidarity with Armenians exacerbated the enmity of the state, resulting in an armed struggle and destruction of the old city with its former Armenian houses. Surp Giragos Church was left alone in its midst, but in an unusable state. But the hunger for connections between Armenian pilgrims and local Kurds and Turks has shown an urge to rebound, with DNA testing on both sides (even though it is illegal in Turkey) revealing new family in the once emptied landscape.
An analytical framework for the pilgrimage experience of diasporic Armenians offers methodological and theoretical possibilities for other studies. This includes a new approach to ethnography, new categories of memory and its trans-generational application, the use of poetry as a way to read affect and agency, and a new use of material culture and vocabularies of religion, the sacred and the profane.